Tom Uttech: Headwinds on Windigoostigwan
Tom Uttech: Headwinds on Windigoostigwan
November 5 – December 22, 2022
The animals in Tom Uttech’s paintings always move from right to left. This is especially noticeable in the swarms of birds—ducks, woodpeckers, jays, too many to name yet each one uniquely identifiable—flashing across the surface, always beak to tail. Uttech has said that this practice derives simply from his right-handedness, that it would be wrong to start drawing from the tail and work toward the head. This is one of many ways these pictures represent something beyond reality: a communion between painter and landscape, but also a scene built out of memory, research, and longing.
Here is another way the paintings reach beyond traditional landscape: they have no depth of field. Or rather, their depth of field is so great that it annihilates the distance between what’s very near and what’s impossibly far. Each level of the composition is treated equally with unfussy brushstrokes. So much happens in these pictures—they are durational in that Uttech stood in the woodlands and witnessed a sunset on a lake, but he also swiveled his head to follow a bird as it flew past, and later on, in the twilight, he crossed paths with a wolf. Uttech’s paintings allow for these varied experiences and glimpses to exist at once, decades in the wilderness compressed into kaleidoscopic views.
There are familiar scenes in the show: Igadekamigishka (2022), with its highway of creatures crossing a foreground of fallen trees, recalls several paintings in the artist’s previous show at the gallery, where reflected trunks and branches formed quasi-abstractions. Paintings like Akiwesi (2022) reprise one of Uttech’s favorite motifs: a solitary bear staring out at the viewer. Notice, in Akiwesi, how the blue fingers of lightning match the fractured downward pull of the vines and moss hanging off of branches, how the light falling on the bear’s fur is almost indistinguishable from the briefly illuminated tree trunks. I can imagine these morphological correspondences as one of the ways Uttech tracks and pulls material from his vast memory bank of the wilderness. Each bird copied from an illustrated page or captured in a pencil sketch, each remembered vista and weather event; these disparate elements require a through line to become a painting. The links that nature presents—that massive clouds can behave like puffs of moss or that antlers can be mistaken in a thicket of branches—guide the composition toward resolution.
The harmony that Uttech achieves on the paintings’ surfaces is in stark contrast to their handmade frames, which are frequently decorated with more painted animals. Those borders between painting and frame seems to allow for an extra step in the morphology: creatures are no longer bound by their earthly anatomies, as in an owl whose horns become red antlers, then lightning bolts that pierce through eyespots on the wings of a Luna moth. Uttech works on these marginalia concurrently with the main painting, so the frames are not finishing touches but personal containers. They are concrete markers of the painter’s vantage point, connections between exterior and interior where dreams are allowed to filter in unmediated. The simplest of the frames—humble planks of wood—function even more directly: they are literal windows through which we view the scene. They are perhaps the most illusionistic of Uttech’s devices, since they both signal our remove from the land and bring our domesticity into the wild.
It is not possible to paint an ecosystem, or to transmute the full awe of a landscape into a picture. Uttech’s paintings are not views of specific places in northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, or Ontario; they are mental castles, places of refuge. The landscape will always change, but these paintings mark how Uttech remembered it, how he wanted to see it, how he was part of it for a time. If the paintings are political, it is in their stewardship, their intimate cataloguing and devotion to a place.
Kijisse Bineshi (2022), titled after an Ojibwe phrase meaning “the bird flies quick,” is in many ways the most straightforward painting in the show. Hundreds of birds fly against an overcast sky reflected in a lake, their feathers brilliant yellows, oranges, and blues. Their bodies are evenly distributed, simply painted. Every species could be named. It is an honest way of working, to feel ceaselessly thrilled by a sense of belonging, and to want to share that feeling.